There are many reasons why old properties lie unused and unloved in rural Ireland. Usually their owners have simply moved on, now living nearby in a modern new house. Some are empty because their owners have emigrated, others because sons and daughters cannot agree what to do with the parents’ “old house”. Change of land usage is another reason; farmland given over to forestry does not require a farmhouse. These days people are also less likely to want to live in rural isolation, a small farm house at the end of a three mile long track might appeal to some, but not many. These old places probably have more harsh memories for their former inhabitants than good ones, particularly when everything you needed had to be hauled up an unsurfaced track, the end of which was miles from the nearest village. It took time and hard work, and the work around the farm still had to be done.
There are also many large ex-colonial houses to be found, going back to the days of independence, when Anglo-Irish landlords were burnt out or simply left. Most of these are now just roofless ivy- covered shells; their finer stone work window sills, lintels, etc. having been robbed-out years ago. More often than not they are very imposing and set in interesting, grand locations. Many beg the question ‘why is nothing being done with them’? Locals will only have ever known them in their current state, and tend to have very little interest in them. However they do make interesting subjects for curious photographers and may even be the beginnings of a little historical research.
Obtaining permission to take photographs can be a problem...who do you ask? Where do you find the owner of a remote property? Some have been empty for decades and have seen a lot of wilful damage, so you might wonder what harm would there be from taking a few pictures. It is a good question, however it is always better to ask first.
It is strange how an indiscriminate act of vandalism can be quite creative; from the burst open front door inviting one in, to the way items can be strewn about in a random manner inside. The unwritten yet golden rule is not to touch or disturb anything. Standing in a room that may not have had occupants since the 1950's can be a moving experience. The picture of the Sacred Heart still hanging on the wall, a framed family photograph broken on the floor, or perhaps an old kitchen dresser, alive with woodworm. But remember, if you do not like the way items have been left or have fallen, leave well alone. Change your perspective. Respect what you find and move on.
Photography inside these old houses can be especially problematic, as most are boarded up with the curtains drawn shut. The light is usually very dim so long exposures are a must, as is a tripod. Picking your way through the clutter, debris and darkness with camera gear in hand is dangerous. Going through the floor boards (a very real hazard) in a house miles off the beaten track could be fatal, as it could be a long time before you were found. Even if you had a phone with you reception can be very poor or non-existent in many areas, especially in the mountains… so do be careful!
These last few years I have become fascinated by abandoned houses, as I have spent much so much time seeking out and exploring them. They are a constant distraction to me as I travel the back roads of Kerry on photography business. It reminds me of the times when as a boy I would always have an eye out for a birds nest…a small nest-like silhouette in a hedgerow or bush would demand closer inspection. This is something I still do to this day, knowing all of the likely places to find them. Likewise now with abandoned houses, a clump of mature trees at the side of the road may hide an old dwelling. Overgrown privet and a rectangular stand of fir trees are also sure signs.
Firs (being fast growing) are a favourite for protection from the wind, as well as privet, escallonia, euonymus, hebe and olearia; all grow huge in the temperate Kerry climate, and often surround old dwellings. Look out for them. However as mentioned before, respect is the order of the day. Run-down, decrepit and ramshackle these houses may now be, but to someone they would have been happy, loving homes. Tread carefully.